The Thoughts of Goh Keng Swee

Goh Keng Swee was one of the founding fathers of Singapore, perhaps the crucial one. From before independence up to the time he stepped down as Deputy Prime Minister in 1984, Dr Goh imagined, birthed and nursed not only all the economic, financial and industrial and development institutions and policies upon which Singapore’s success is based, but also took under his wing Singapore’s education and defence portfolios.

Whilst the world remembers Lee Kuan Yew as the indispensable first leader of Singapore, it is at least arguable that it was Dr Goh whose imagination and diligence secured its economic, financial and even diplomatic foundations. It also seems likely that Dr Goh, though doubtless a scary boss, would not have welcomed the tightening and deadening conservatism of LKY’s later years.

Maybe Dr Goh was the velvet hand inside LKY’s steel gauntlet.

The 1972 collection of his essays ‘The Economics of Modernization and other Essays’ is out of print (why?), but a pdf copy can be borrowed, an hour at a time, from the University of Arizona. It is well worth reading, since it is rare to encounter such a fertile and supple mind able to write so elegantly. What emerges is a master landscape-painter compelled by circumstance to work, and work hard, on miniatures.

Those essays illustrate Dr Goh’s preoccupations during the 1960s and 1970s, a period when it was quite possible – likely even – that Singapore as a nation would not survive. The breadth and profundity of thought allied with his command of detail, is all the more remarkable for having flourished in that environment.

In 2023, any observer can see that the British establishment has failed the country, and that the nation, its economy, its institutions, its society and its morale, will have to be rebuilt from the foundations up. It is with that in mind that I have picked out some themes from Dr Goh’s essays. The selection is by no means comprehensive.


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